Wake Innovates - Learning more about the Wake County Office of Innovation

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Recently, Innovation Center Director Deante Tyler sat down with Bill Greeves of the Wake County Innovation Center to discuss innovation within the public sector. Bill has served as the Chief Information and Innovation Officer since 2012. A native of Virginia, he previously served as Chief Information Officer for Roanoke County and Hampton, Va., and held positions in technology management within the City of Virginia Beach. The Wake County CREATEspace is a one-of-a-kind innovation lab located in the Wake County Office Building. It houses the County’s innovation team as well as several creative space areas dedicated to learning and innovation. 

Deante Tyler and Bill Greeves talkingDeante Tyler: So, Bill, we're sitting here in the Wake County Innovation Center, Wake Innovate’s space. Could you kind of describe what it means to the county to have a space like this? What is this space for? What does it do? How do people utilize this space?

Bill Greeves: Sure. I'd be happy to. We created this space because we wanted to have a dedicated area within the county that was focused exclusively on innovation and we did not want it to be with a single department. We wanted it to be for all county employees, so it's physically separated from all departments, but it's designed for all county employees to use. We encourage them to use it and take advantage of it as people learn more about its purpose and function and the tools that we offer here.

So, it's really got four primary areas. There's a "Collaboratory," that's where we're sitting here, and this is used for creative problem solving, facilitator group discussion around trying to solve a business problem, or take advantage of a business opportunity or really just try to approach developing a solution in a different way. So, it frequently houses large groups of people from different disciplines or different departments that are focused on trying to attain a specific goal.

Next door we have our "Thinkubator," which is our small scale, cohort style classroom that we've used to train people on innovation techniques or practices -- we've done cohort recently on design thinking, for example. Our data scientist leads a cohort through their Power BI, which is the tool we use for visual analytics. Then, down the hall, we have our "disco-tech," which is ‘discovering technology’, and we use that area to introduce the organization to new technologies that we're going to implement, or it's also where we experiment with potential technologies that we might want to use. So, we're looking at things right now like drones and 3D printers and trying to find out if they have a real home in our organization.

And the other part of this floor, is [where] we have dedicated rooms that are, we call them "labs," but they're rooms that are set aside for long-term project use so that people can come together, spread out, use all the materials and use it as a collaborative workspace for the duration of a project whether it's two weeks or six months or whatever. We found that that is much more effective to give people a place to get away from their normal work environment and focus on the project at hand and be able to spread out to get the work done.

Deante: If there's another public-sector entity that's looking to start its own innovation program, where would you say... What are some of the key things that you think that they need in order to get a successful launch?

ThinkubatorBill: And I can speak to this very comfortably only because we've just recently got to do it ourselves, so I don't profess to be an expert, I just know from doing my own research. I strongly believe they need dedicated space, dedicated staffing, and dedicated funding. They need the space because you need to give people a comfort zone to feel safe in doing experimentation. So, everything you see and hear is focused on experimentation and labs and trials, and we try to use that language very frequently to give people the idea that this is a laboratory and you're allowed to screw things up. So that you have that space.

They need to have funding because you've got to have some funding set aside to do like pilot programs or training related to innovation so that it does not cut into the bottom line because everybody is so focused on delivering, you know, and putting out fires. There's got to be that separate component that allows you to test things out a little bit. And I do believe they need to have dedicated staffing because there needs to be some cheerleaders who have specific skills related to innovation and thinking differently so that they can begin to sort of propagate this culture change across the organization. This is not the only place that innovation happens in the organization. There are creative people all across the organization and creative things going on everywhere. But we wanted to have a home base, so we could start to affect that culture more positively and people can kind of come and go and get a little bit of a taste of something, and then they take back to their organization that starts to expand from there. But I think you have to have those three components to start in order to be effective.

Deante: I know in some of your talks you've spoken about how one of the drives or one of the missions if you will, is to be able to engage the local civic tech community. Could you talk about that type of engagement and how it relates to perhaps the space?

CollaboratoryBill: Sure. Yeah, that's a really good point that I neglected earlier. We have a very active civic tech community in this area. We also have a very active startup community. And we are using this space as kind of a jumping off point to interact with them and bring them in on discussions as much as possible because they offer things that we can't offer as a county.

In many cases, the startups can be very nimble in how they approach a particular problem or issue. And so, we're constantly looking for opportunities to run experiments with them -- controlled experiments with them to find ways to improve our service while, at the same time, gives them some more "street cred," if you will, and real-world experience in dealing with customers. And on the civic tech community, we have a huge civic tech ecosystem here of people who are very talented in development or other tech skills who want to plow that passion back into their community. And so, we try to partner up with them wherever possible.

By focusing... first of all we sponsor their efforts in a lot of ways. We underwrite some of their events, we participate in their events very actively and then whenever possible we try to connect with them on the work that they're doing, seeing how we can tie that to the goals of our board of commissioners who have very defined goals, and so each year, they update those goals and so we try to work with the civic tech community to update their areas of focus accordingly. We don't dictate what they do, but whenever possible, we try to collaborate with them on saying "ok, well if you guys focus on this, this would help us over here and vice versa." So, it's been a very positive partnership. We go so far [that] even during our last interview process for innovation partner, [we] actually brought one of them in to help us.

Create SpaceDeante: That sounds pretty cool.

Bill: Yeah.

Deante: How would you say people can get involved? You mentioned the civic tech community and the kind of the startup community. How would you encourage someone who's maybe got an idea or had something to offer? How would they engage?

Bill: Sure. Probably the easiest way is just go to the website WakeInnovates.com, and that's got contact information for me and for the team up there. And we welcome involvement. We don't have a whole lot of citizens through here. But that's not from lack of interest and hearing what they have to say. I think it's just kind of maybe not really on their radar so if people have ideas, private citizens or companies or whoever, please definitely encourage them to contact us through there and we'll get back in touch with them. Happy to give them a tour and hear what they have to say or have a discussion.

Deante: Cool. If people want to follow up... you mentioned the website earlier WakeInnovates.com. Are you on Twitter?

Bill: Yes. @bgreeves.

Deante: Cool. Thank you, sir.